Europe's Christmas Markets, Part One: The Mainland

Come November, small wooden imitation ski chalets start popping up in cities across Europe, ready to distribute Christmas cheer. A tradition that began in the Middle Ages in Germany, it has slowly spread to take over all of Europe. It is one of my favourite holiday rituals and one I am very sad to be missing since I am spending this Christmas in California. There are hundreds of markets in Europe and I have a very long list of markets I hope to visit one day – Dresden, Vienna, Prague ... But here are a few of my favourites so far.

Freiburg, Germany

The lights, the smell of hot wine, the hum of people chattering – every year, Freiburg’s central streets become a maze of Christmas merriment. One of the larger markets I have visited, Freiburg has stalls set up across several squares and streets in the old city. Last year they even had a small Ferris wheel. I spent all day wandering around the market, picking out gifts. There was a variety of bits and bobs for sale from fluffy hats to Chinese flowering tea bulbs. Unsurprisingly my favourite part was all of the delicious food and drink. From Bratwurst to Glühwein, everything was perfect. I think I overindulged a bit too much on the many sweet treats. Baumstriezel, or Kürtoskalács, quickly became a favourite of mine. Sometimes called chimney cake in English, it is a hollow bread covered in cinnamon sugar or other delectable toppings made by rolling a long strip of dough around a wide spit and baking it over a fire. It is delicious and I am surprised it has not made its way into British Christmas markets yet. On the edge of the Black Forest, Freiburg itself is wonderful to visit. Münsterplatz is the highlight of the city. The imposing gothic medieval Minister towers above the square, unique because of its single large centre tower. Also on the square is the historic Merchants’ Hall, painted entirely red and strikingly beautiful – it’s effortlessly Christmassy.

Basel, Switzerland

Despite being lesser known, this is my favourite Christmas market. When the Christmas season kicks in, Basel becomes a Christmas fairy-tale with beautiful lights and decorated trees. The city supposedly has the largest Christmas market in Switzerland. The market is divided between Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz. The market on Münsterplatz, though small, was easily my favourite. With lights in the trees that look like bursting stars and the beautiful Minster rising above the wooden ski chalets, the overall effect is magical. The small market is full of handcrafted gifts and is enveloped in the smells of mulled wine and hot food. I particularly loved the Rösti smothered in applesauce, but my favourite food was the giant sized, incredibly tender meat skewer which was almost as long as my arm. However, what really set the market apart from any market I have visited in the UK were the activities for children. There is a designated children’s “fairy-tale forest” with workshops and even a small train. I had never seen a more magical arts and crafts area for children. And by arts and crafts I do not mean just Christmas tree drawing. There were workshops for activities from candle making to forging metalwork! It made me want to revert back to my own childhood. It was the perfect way to prepare for Christmas.

Paris, France

Visiting one of the most magical and romantic cities in the world at the most magical time of year had been on my bucket list for a very long time. So after multiple visits to Paris I finally made it there during the Christmas season. It’s safe to say I was over the moon. When I finally arrived though, I was in fact a little disappointed. The city was not nearly as ‘dressed up’ for Christmas as I would have expected, but luckily they did have a rather large Christmas market. There are several markets dotted around the city. One of my favourites is a tiny market in Square René Viviani with handmade gifts and delicious cheeses. After you can pop into Notre Dame which has a beautiful Nativity scene set up every year. But my preferred market lines the Champs-Élysées beginning at the Place de la Concorde. There were stalls running up both sides of the street and although the bits and bobs were a little less unique, it was still more than enough to bring on the Christmas mood. There was even Santa Claus in his sleigh being pulled by reindeer on a wire strung high in the sky. It was certainly the first Christmas market I have visited that actually made Santa’s reindeer fly – I cannot believe I ever doubted his existence. It’s no wonder that I have spent the last fifteen years on the naughty list.

Top: Basel, Switzerland

Photography by Savannah Hayes

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